Thursday, December 29, 2011

Wrong on Education

Norbert Cunningham treats Moncton to his own special treatment of education, inspired by Margaret Wente (Globe and Mail Dec. 15: "Why Alex can't add (or subtract, multiply or divide)) beginning with his recommendations on math lessons flavoured by his own style of social psychology:
There's a problem here and it's not the educational specifics. Nor, in the case of bizarre approaches to teaching math, is it just that those in charge of our education system are themselves intellectually incapable of understanding basic principles of math (i.e. 'division' in math doesn't involve conflict and doesn't need to be called 'sharing,' which is a different idea). 
Though what he really wants to attack is the whole idea of sharing (if you can't wait for it, go down to the last few paragraphs) he's going to get there by means of attacking the education system. Which he doesn't really know about - but still has strong opinions on.
What we thus get are constantly changing 'standards' (improvements, we're told) that hide the fact the system is failing. When the statistics from year to year and decade to decade cannot be reliably compared, there's only anecdotes. But gosh the anecdotal evidence is overwhelming: our school systems is neither excellent nor getting better. 
That's our Norbert - "To hell with the statistics! I have good old-fashioned (made in the 18th century) New Brunswick intuition!" Before addressing editorial writer Norbert Cunningham's concerns about the dropout rate at Canadian schools, let's look at the actual data. Here are the statistics from Human Resources and Skills Development Canada:



And lest we suppose this is a snapshot of an isolated statistic, here are some more figures regarding educational attainment in Canada:


These tables illustrated an unmitigated path of success over 20 years, an almost ceaseless advance toward greater and more equitable educational achievement in Canada. The number of drop-outs was steadily reduced from 16.6 percent in 1990 to about half of that today. The number of people with college certificates or university degrees has steadily increased.

Perhaps the concern is that Canada is not faring well internationally? It's hard to make that case. Almost half of all Canadians completed post-secondary education, the highest percentage among OECD member countries, and well above the OECD average of 28.4%. Add to that trades and vocational certification (not included in OECD numbers) and Canada fares extremely well.



Similarly, Canadian students score exceptionally well in the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment tests, or PISA. The students in our best schools - in Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia - score with the best in the world - they are the best in the world. Even in Canada's less advanced provinces, including here in New Brunswick, students score even with the United States in reading and well above the U.S. in mathematics - and consistently well when compared with the rest of the world. Read the numbers for yourself. And there's more data saying the same thing.

Yes, we could do better. In particular, our record in First Nations communities is of concern; "In 2006, 41% of the Aboriginal population had post-secondary certification; only 8% had a university degree." Rural communities tend to do less well than the cities, and regions slow to adopt newer educational methodologies - notably the Maritime provinces - also fare more poorly.

So, now, with some facts at our disposal (and there are many more painting the same picture; this is hardly cherry-picking) let's examine Norbert Cunningham's concerns.

He writes (and I'll quote at length, to set the stage):
In our post-war society it became increasingly difficult for people who dropped out of school to find good work with a reasonable hope for an economically secure future. Only a few decades before, it was the norm, particularly for boys, to quit school. University was not 'for everyone.' That evolved in the 1960s. And without at least high school jobs became scarce. But dropout rates remained higher than what most caring people thought was acceptable. It was also generally treated as irrelevant that the same dropout rates were far lower than ever before. What to do? The virtually unanimous answer from newly minted experts was to assume -- never close to proven to this day -- that the persistent dropout rate was caused by flawed teaching methods. That's given us fad after fad, failure after failure.
One wonders what data - if any - Cunningham is looking at in order to draw this conclusion. While the data depict a continuously improving situation, Cunningham reports"fad after fad, failure after failure." One has to ask, what failure? Yes, to be sure, eight percent is still too high (and is only partially mitigated by people who graduate high school as adults, such as myself). But where is the fad and failure in a generation of steady improvement?

But what Cunningham is really after is the straw man argument he sets up in the previous paragraph, the assertion by "newly minted experts" that "the persistent dropout rate was caused by flawed teaching methods." This was just an assumption, he argues. "Never close to proven to this day." And, he writes,
It ignores variability in human nature, interests and abilities. Can't talk about that, it's not fair, was the ethos; everyone's capable. It wasn't 'science' or even evidence based, just dogma married to incredibly sloppy self-justifying research. Both are still thriving.

Cunningham's argument errs on two grounds. First, it is simply not true that newly minted experts simply assumed that the problem lay in teaching methods. Numerous studies exist; we could, for example, examine this report that reviews 203 peer-reviewed studies on the causes of drop-outs:
The research review identified two types of factors that predict whether students drop out or graduate from high school: factors associated with individual characteristics of students, and factors associated with the institutional characteristics of their families, schools, and communities.
Exactly the opposite of what Cunningham claims! There was research, ample research, a wide-ranging series of examinations, and they identified factors related to individual students and their surrounding communities. Yes, teaching methods would be addressed - educators have little power to control socio-economic factors. But these pedagogical changes would address individual student variability and their community.

Different studies produce varying results, but the bulk of educational research yielded similar conclusions, leading to the development of what we today call "progressive" educational policies. These are the policies widely employed in places like Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia (and employed less frequently in places like New Brunswick, largely due to the protestations of people like Cunningham) and which have led - along with national advances in social equity and personal wealth - to the educational outcomes we see today.

(How does Cunningham react to proof that Canadians are the best in the world? Like this: "International ratings, such as PISA scores, become meaningless, for the problem isn't confined to Canada -- being near the top of rankings merely means you're among the best of a global crop producing increasingly impoverished yields." Never mind that absolute measurements - like literacy rates and drop-out rates - are steadily improving. There's still some mythical 'better' that only Cunningham can lead us to.)

Now we get two paragraphs of incoherent rambling (I'm sorry - but there's no other way to say it). First he argues that the putative failures were the "failure of a one-size-fits-all system to adapt to students. Quite so - but that's exactly what many of the pedagogical changes address.

Then he jumps to funding: "Could intractable dropout rates be the result of governments never (not once) putting the kind of money into education that would be required to eliminate dropping out?" Could be - but we see higher drop-out rates in Alberta, despite massive funding - the result of rural and First Nations conditions. Equity - not raw spending - is what makes the difference. 

Then he defends streaming. "We've seen bizarre, illogical efforts: 'streaming' was declared inherently 'bad' and discouraging to kids heading into a trade. Out it went, baby, bathwater and basin too. In New Brunswick that meant an end, until just recently, to even trying to teach trades." This would be a surprise to the New Brunswick Community College system - and inexplicable given the already-cited statistics showing a 50 percent increase in trades certification over the last 20 years. Discouraging streaming resulted in more trades education, not less. Because 'putting the dumb kids into trades' serves neither them, nor the trades, well at all.

Then he returns to an argument already widely accepted by today's educators: that "students are not widgets on an assembly line, each to be stamped out identically." 
The system isn't coming close to reaching all students. The path we're on fiddles with teaching methods rather than provide the resources to reach all. Lying to ourselves instead of fixing the issues or otherwise accepting reality makes only politicians and bureaucrats feel good. Few believe the lies about 'new' fads: witness decades of complaints testifying to their consistent failure. The culprits are primarily the politicians, administrators, bureaucrats and 'experts.' It's shameful. Deliberate, conscious choices have created a downward spiral of mediocrity.
After his attack on the Canadian educational system, which is doing better than most to cater to individual student needs (I actually wrote a column specifically on this a few years back - does he know that students in Edmonton, for example, can choose from any school in the city?) the reader is left wondering whether he knows what is happening in Canadian schools at all! Or even New Brunswick schools!

Perhaps he should view this video about 21st century learning in New Brunswick (from his comments we have to judge that he has never seen it). Or perhaps this brochure on the program: 
Public education in the industrial era was founded on discipline and facts. In the 21st Century individual and societal success will be founded on creativity. Creative thinkers will be in demand to guide business innovation and to solve complex societal issues, some of global proportions.  NB3-21C is designed to produce creative problem solvers. Today, creativity trumps regurgitation of facts. Facts you can access on the internet.
This is not the system Cunningham is criticizing. And while the current government in pulling back on the progressive education program in the province (which will result, I can say confidently, in a reduction in the gains we've seen over the last few years) it has not abandoned it whole-scale and gone back to the traditional system. So what, exactly, is Cunningham criticizing? We can say confidently that he knows little to nothing about the Canadian system. My best guess is that he is probably attacking some of the American education reformers writing in the Conservative policy papers he reads from south of the border (that's just a guess - but what else could be be criticizing? A Dickens novel?).

Cunningham goes off the deep end to conclude his column:
Dump the 'experts'; dump the bureaucrats ensuring confusion about results reigns; and dump the lies to, and slander of, parents and other critics. Dump the assumptions of dogma for valid fact (and do the valid studies -- surprisingly few exist). Set curriculum and methodology locally. Real expertise does exist. Ban outside 'experts' from any contact with the system. 
One wonders what Cunningham means by an 'outside expert' - would I qualify, having lived in the province only 10 years?perhaps the people in the Department of Education who crafted the 21st century education plan would qualify, despite their focus on individual achievement and creativity. Who knows? Perhaps what he means is that curriculum and methodology should be set by the writers at the local paper. He certainly doesn't mean the teachers! Or maybe he does...
Development days that merely perpetuate a rotten system are worse than pointless. It's not as foolhardy as it may sound. It puts faith in the common sense, experience and intuition of teachers -- and goods one have plenty. They don't need, and never have, those 'experts' in universities who are using research methodology that'd earn a failure for any first year science undergrad in the next building over. I don't exaggerate. For heaven's sake, university administrators, it's time to insist on meaningful standards too. Anything less and nothing significant will change; we'll be waiting for an unlikely miracle.
Sure - depend on the teachers, he says. But make sure they don't get any of that book larnin! Because then they'll be filled with fool ideas (like, I guess, ideas from Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia? The best educational jurisdictions in the world?) 

In the end, Cunningham takes the same approach so many other pundits in the same New Brunswick newspaper have for so many years: attack anything from outside the province as unproven and untested, eschew 'science' (in favour of "common sense, experience and intuition") while at the same time attacking opponents for not being scientific (they just follow "a naive assumption"). And repeat repeat repeat the dogma of the day - that Canada's educational system is doing poorly and that it is the 'experts' that are to blame. To follow, I suppose, a "made-in-New Brunswick" approach (that just coincidentally favours some major corporations already entrenched in the province).

And he is appealing - you can see it pretty clearly if you read between the lines - to the age-old mythology that some people are just born geniuses, or gifted athletes, or musicians, or so on. That's the 'difference' (and not individual desire or creativity) that he celebrates. That's the justification, in his mind, for some people being 'gifted' and other people being 'streamed'. It's a rejection - implicit, never stated, and hence never defended - of decades of studies pointing to the socio-economic basis of educational outcomes. Cunningham believes that some people are simply better than others, that they deserve their privilege, and presumably their wealth. It's an appeal to a sort of social Darwinism that has no basis in evidence (but which lives on in the "common sense, experience and intuition" of people who have not been contaminated by 'science' and 'experts'. That's the dogma - if you note, it is repeated (repeat repeat repeat) throughout the column.

But it's wrong. If you look at the data on educational attainment - actually look at it, instead of pretending you did - you see that those nations that do well are those that practice a high degree of social equity. Read what the data says (see especially pp. 104-105 about achieving equity and improving support for weaker students). That separating and widening the difference between gifted and otherwise harms both. That even if the 'natural genius' theory is correct (though it probably isn't - more genius can be explained by hard work) the suggestion that the rich should get richer at the expense of the poor results in everybody getting poorer. Which is why - in a nutshell - the New Brunswick economy continues to struggle.

Cunningham's commentary does a disservice to education in Canada and New Brunswick, a disservice by labeling a generation of success a "failure", but misrepresenting the state of that educational system, by attacking the people responsible for that success, and by suggesting that there is some sort of local home-spun wisdom that would result in better outcomes. Wrong, on all fronts - and next time Cunningham deigns to write on education, he should do his homework.

p.s. the local newspapers are apparently going behind a firewall some time in 2012. Most people believe it's because they want the revenue - though most such efforts lose money. I think it's to keep columns like this, and the rest of the 'coverage' in this 'newspaper' hidden from public view and the increasing volume of criticism to which it has been subjected.

p.p.s the local newspaper restricts commentary to 1000 words. Having one's own blog - and being able to link to the evidence - is a lot better.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Where the Future Lies

Responding to Durff's Blog

In a post today I summarized Bill Cushard in Mindflash as follows: If I had to summarize the best advice I could give to e-learning developers, it would be this: "here are two key lessons for learning professionals:
1. Adapt to the on-demand world.
2. Embed learning into the context of people’s work."

I also pointed to the resistance against these two trends common in the industry. I would suggest that some of the sentiments expressed in this post are the cause of such resistance. We hear time and time again comments like "s collaboration is important because it emphasizes skills, team-building, and creativity that will be necessary in any student's future." But it's hard to make such an argument stick when the nature of collaboration itself is changing.

Collaboration brings people together, usually at a set place and/or time. It focuses them on a common objective. It emphasizes conformity and uniformity, orchestration and management, pulling as one" and "all singing from the same songbook." These are precisely the trends we are seeing erode in the future of on-demand and as-needed learning.

people often talk as though the alternative to collaboration is working completely on one's own. But this is not true. We still have to communicate and interact. But we can do so while remaining independent and autonomous. This mode of working together is called 'cooperation'. Online learning of the future will be based around a cooperative model, not a collaborative one.

That's the basis behind network learning (though you have to look at it a bit more deeply than surface observations (following Cluetrain) that 'learning is a conversation'. Understanding learning as a language sees each learner as an autonomous actor comprehending and creating communicative acts.

This has nothing to do with "respond to accelerating global competition," etc., Kanuka notwithstanding. Connectivism and network learning are about augmenting individual empowerment, not accelerating the old commodity-based and management-based economy. It's not some sort of modern free trade that homogenizes us all in a single environment. It is a fostering of diversity, a flowering of individuality.

Where this ties into the workplace is two-fold, both related to individual autonomy and diversity. First, it enables custom workplace support, where the performance support system is tailored to your interests and your resources. This in turn allows each individual to make a *unique* contribution to the production or value chain - people cease being interchangeable parts and begin becoming essential individual elements of the ecosystem.

So much of the writing I see about e-learning, whether present systems or future trends, seems to be focused on some sort of 'business reality' that the proponents seem to believe will prevail. That's probably why most of the pundits, even Siemens, write what are essentially 'business' books.

But the more they are pulled into the old language of 'competition', 'reducing barriers', 'productivity', 'collaboration', and other management-style ideology, the more they miss the actual revolutionary potential of these new systems, both for work and for learning.

p.s. the more I see blog posts citing 'traditional literature' to the exclusion of all else, the more disappointed I become. Don't be led down this garden path into believing that only academic literature is worthwhile. If you want to write about connectivism and network learning, the most important (not to mention original) work lies outside academia, not within.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Taking Responsibility for the State of Society

What has been most offensive about the media coverage of the Occupy movement has been the misrepresentation of both the issues that have prompted the protests and the response of the Occupy movement. We have yet another example of such coverage in (where else?) our local newspaper.

Martin Latulippe ("CSP, social entrepreneur and engaged citizen") is given an NB Business Journal column in order to tell us that he has been following the Occupy protests, and that while he is in favour of "these different demonstrations of indignation" he finds it difficult to understand "the absence of accountability among some demonstrators and the somewhat denigrating discourse aimed at people who spent their life honestly building their wealth."



While I applaud his effort to frame the discourse in the first few paragraphs, it should be pointed out right at the outset that many of the demonstrators observe that the richest in society have not been honest in building their wealth, that they very often skirt the limit of the law, if not overtly falling over it, and that they demonstrate time and again a tendency to ignore rules and regulations, engage in corrupt practices, and sometimes engage in outright criminality, especially in the developing world.

And to the extent that these people have come by their wealth honestly, their wealth has been earned not by themselves alone, as such framing suggests, but by dint of the fact that they work within the framework of a society, one that has been supportive of their efforts to build wealth, that provides them infrastructure and security, and educates and manages an increasingly expert workforce to support these efforts. 

Latulippe deliberately misrepresents the position of the occupy movement (I say "deliberately" because nobody could have studied the movement, as he says he has, and come to the position he describes). He says the movement "attacks the 1%, proclaiming that the rich should be taxed at a higher rate, in an effort to redistribute wealth; we also here (sic) this in our province and regions."

What the Occupy movement has observed is that the wealthy typically pay taxes at a much lower rate than the rest of us. The Bank Transfer day protest, for example, pointed to the fact that institutions like the bank of America pay less tax than their employees, like the single bank teller. The banks, meanwhile, entrench their positions through questionable and offensive practices. This is not a simple effort to 'redistribute wealth". It is a clarion call for a broad-based regulation of an out-of-control industry.

"I find this discourse quite simplistic," writes Latulippe. Well of course the does! He has deliberately represented it as such. He continues, "It is as if all the underprivileged in the world were being placed under the same umbrella, by saying that they didn't have a chance and that the rich - in addition to being profiteers - were lucky and must pay the tab!" But this of course is not the Occupy Wall Street position at all! Rather, the protesters are saying quite clearly that the game is rigged in favour of the wealthy. Simple fairness would be sufficient to satisfy the bulk of OWS's demands.

Latulippe tells us he is "growing tired of hearing the same things in our media and popular discourse." Rather, he says, "Media rarely looks at the thousands of hours some of these entrepreneurs invest to create their own wealth, the many hours of sacrifice and the risks they take to achieve their dream."

Quite the opposite is true, of course. Media devotes thousands of hours and acres of column-inches to coverage of the rich and the powerful, more often than not describing the sacrifices they made, their unique expertise and insight, and of course the work they undertook on their way to the top. What the media does not describe is the fact that everybody makes sacrifices to support themselves and their family, that expertise and insight are common in society, and finally that most people these days work long hours for the bulk of their lives just in order to get by!

As for the risks - a person putting a little aside for retirement is taking a much larger risk than the banks and corporations that are bailed out or deemed "too big to fail" by the government. Nobody sees their retirement savings disappear more quickly or regularly than the average person.

As much as Latulippe would like to make it seem the opposite, the underlying message of Occupy Wall Street is that the wealthy are not special. They don't sacrifice more, they don't have special skills, they don't take greater risks, and they don't work any harder than the rest of us. Therefore they should pay their taxes and live responsibly in society, just like the rest of us. They should not have a special voice at the legislature, they should not receive preferential treatment, they should not get away with criminal conduct, and they should not be able to manage their risks on the backs of everyone else in society.

Listen to this crap from Latulipp: "I know hundreds of entrepreneurs throughout Canada and New Brunswick who, every year, find themselves facing serious workforce problems because some of their employees would rather take advantage of the system by illegally filing for employment insurance or deciding to remain on social assistance. Such practices often jeopardize the future of some businesses. But such a scourge can never be dealt with in the media or addressed by a politician without public outcry or the opposition up in arms. Defending "the big bad" rich is poorly perceived. And unfortunately it doesn't garner popular votes either!"

What Latulippe doesn't say is that these employers are paying minimum wage and campaigning for it to be lowered or eliminated, that they want to employ people only seasonably or part time, that they want to manage employee hours in such a way as to avoid paying benefits, and that they often create dangerous working conditions and lobby against safety measure that would protect workers. Nobody is living well on Employment Insurance and even less so on welfare - that a person would find it more worthwhile to break the law and live on such substandard means says a lot about how bad these jobs these hundreds of employers are offering.

What Latulippe also doesn't do here is offer actual evidence of any large numbers of people collecting Employment Insurance illegally. In order for such practice to jeopardize the prospects of hundreds of enterprises across New Brunswick, it would have to be widespread, involving thousands of employees. But there is no evidence of this. What is in fact the case is that employers here are paying such low wages and offering such poor working conditions that people would rather leave - and that's what they are doing, year after year. If these employers want their businesses to survive, they should consider paying fair wages.

And then, laughably, from Latulippe: "And yet, the reality is that there are as many rich profiteers as there are poor, but nobody wants to hear about the problems of those who keep the economy running... particularly when these problems involve people who have worked hard all their life to get where they are today." If we just run the numbers on this, given that the wealthy are one percent of society, then if even one percent of the poor are criminals, it follows from Latulippe's own reasoning that every one of the the 1% is criminal. That's probably not true either - some of the 1% were simply lucky enough to inherit their money - but it just shows how poorly reasoned Latulippe's screed has been.

He continues, "Popular culture is obsessed with painting an unkind picture of those who are financially well-off, portraying them as people who want to take advantage of others. Whether it's a Hollywood movie or in one of our Tim Hortons, we have all seen and heard the rich being denigrated."

Yes. There's a good reason for that. It's because it's true.  Time after time after time we see incidences of the financially wealthy taking advantage of the poor. That's why, for example, we see in Moncton this week a company that made $100 million last year locking out employees and then refusing to pay them money they had already earned and set aside while the dispute remains unresolved. That's what their talking about in the Tim Hortons - and if the corporations didn't do it, the people in Tims wouldn't have anything to talk about!

But Latulippe would rather have it otherwise: "It's easier to blame the 1% for all the hardships of the world and demand a share of their wealth, than to push up your sleeves and create your own happiness. The Robin Hood discourse has always sold well. But, personally, I find it appalling that some demonstrators blame only the rich and wealth, in general, for the ills of the world."

Let's remember that the Robin Hood discourse describes a gang that attacks rich people and forceably removes them of their wealth. These attacks are well-deserved - the Sheriff of Nottingham and Prince John are abusing the trust that has been given to them by King Richard and are oppressing the poor through means contrived and illegal simply to augment their own wealth, and causing widespread hardship and ruin in the land as a result.

We have all of this today except for the Robin Hood attacking the rich and distributing wealth to the poor. And while I know that it is a popular lament of the 1% to describe taxation as a form of theft, it is in fact the opposite of that. Nobody in the Occupy Wall Street movement is demanding the violent seizure of wealth from the rich - around the world, whether in Egypt and Tunisia, in Russia, Italy and Greece, across the United States, and in Canada, the call has been consistently to stage peaceful demonstration, to accomplish legal changes, rather than to promote armed uprising.

But Latulippe thinks the whole system is unfair - to the rich. "It's ironic that a young student who spent two months demonstrating out of an 'Occupy' camp is perceived as person with good values, whereas the young entrepreneur who worked hard during the same period to launch his business, take risks and believe in his dreams will soon be perceived as a crook, once he's succeeded!"

Let's pause and reflect on this for a moment. The person in the Occupy camp - who may be a student, but is just as likely a retired person, an unemployed, a seasonal worker, or any other member of society - is giving up their income and family life for two months in order to work toward an improvement in society. He or she is calling not only of redress of the social and economic problems being caused by the inequities in society, but also for a proper response to things threatening us all, such as the onset of global warming.

The rich person, by contrast, has spent the same time to launch his own business. Well good for him, but let's be clear that this person is working for himself during this time - entrepreneurs are not launching businesses for the good of society, they are doing it to make money. And will this person be perceived as a crook? well - sometimes. Not always - most people doing business in the community are honest, which is why they remain small businesses. There will be some, however, perceived to be crooks - because they are!

After all - if the person after working for only two months is able to support with his taxes the protestor for that same two month period, then there is something fishy going on, because no honest person makes that kind of money after only two months effort. And more often than not, the accumulation of a lot of wealth in a short amount of time is a good indication of some criminal behaviour. If I suddenly bought a new house and began riding around town in a Hummer, you'd look at me sceptically no matter where I work. But when a businessperson does this, we're supposed to just look away?

The representation here is vile. We are being told that the rich people are the "job creators who help keep the economy rolling" while the rest of us - and especially those who protest - are ignoring our own responsibilities and simply trying to seek more of their wealth. What a load - frankly - of crap.

The rich do not create jobs, and directing more and more wealth in their direction results in a loss of jobs, not a creation of them. Societies with the greatest and most stable employment, as well as the most enduring and dependable wealth, are those societies in which there is the least disparity between rich and poor. Actual job creation is accomplished though the concerted efforts of the entire society to make the most of natural resources and trading opportunities, not through the singular largesse of some rich person working for his or her own self-interest.

What we see the rich doing, more often than not, is using their wealth not so much to create new wealth but as leverage to acquire other wealth that already exists. Sometimes this is accomplished through the purchase or acquisition of companies that actually do produce things (their new wealth will now be directed to paying the interest on the borrowing needed to acquire the business, not on new development or research). Sometimes their wealth is used as leverage against politicians to make decisions that create windfall profits. Again, this often works against the interest of the community.

Now after this blatant simplification and misrepresentation of OWS, Latulippe is going to claim some nuance for his own position. He's always there to support the disadvantaged, he says, but we must bring citizen accountability to the forefront. "Conservatives blame Liberals. Liberals blame Conservatives. The rich blame the poor, the poor blame the rich. Parents blame teachers; teachers blame parents, and so on and so forth." What he would rather see is "a box with a nice little mirror inside, so that people can look at themselves and see where the true solution really starts."

That's fair enough, and everybody should be accountable for their own part of the problem, but it follows that those causing the greatest part of the problem have the most to be accountable about, and need to make the greatest redress. And that's just it: I can accept my own responsibility while at the same time still be protesting with those of Occupy Wall Street. Indeed, taking part in these protests is actually a part of taking responsibility. It would be easier, and a lot more safe, to quietly go to work day after day and not make any waves.

But what I observe is that the damage to society being caused by the rich is  too great to allow for such luxury. We have observed the predatory and often criminal acts of the wealthy bring our society to the edge of collapse (and we may yet fall over). We have seen the inequity in society not only harm the economy and not only impair the work we are trying to do in health care and education, but also cause a great deal of hardship and harm. People lose their jobs, they lose their pensions, and the social supports like EI and pensions, into which they have paid all their lives, are being destroyed in order to subsidize the rich.

I live in a province that has at once two of the richest  families in Canada and at the same time some of the lowest levels of income in Canada, a province in which the wealth of one family is remarkably similar to the provincial debt. The prevalence and influence of wealth in provincial politics and the widespread poverty are not coincidence: one is the cause of the other. And it is a part of my responsibility, indeed, my prime responsibility as a citizen, to respond to that situation, not for my own benefit (for most surely there will be none) but for the benefit of the people of the province.

Make no mistake. More and more of the poor and the wage earners and the retired are "taking responsibility" for the state of their society. And the rich will not like that one bit. Because the poverty of society has not been caused by these people working hard and saving and sacrificing their entire lives. It has been created by the wealthy, who have manifestly and most obviously have stolen that wealth. It is not simply time to force them to give it back. It's time to reform our democracy, so that this can never happen again.

Here's the Moncton Occupy protestor, speaking out:

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Replacing Email?

In response to Brian Kelly, The (Technology) Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present and Christmas Yet To Come

While my perspective is admittedly limited, and while I can almost be legitimately referred to as an old stick-in-the-mud, I think my own experience is relevant.

Currently, email is by far and away the most common way people contact me. I'll get maybe two or three phone calls in a day, zero instant messages or texts, and about 200 emails. Granted, 150 of those are not useful emails. But the remainder still dwarfs what's left.

But OK, that's just me. My mobile phone is usually turned off and lost somewhere in the house, the battery drained. I don't use an instant messaging client because ICQ never worked with MSN, which never worked with AOL, etc, etc. But I do have active Facebook and Twitter accounts (from which I'll average a couple of messages a day) and I'm not *that* technologically archaic.

My newsletter statistics tell a similar story. My website gets a lot of views on the web - almost a million page views in the last six months - and the number of email recipients of my newsletter continues to grow slowly, now over 3300 a day and around 5000 for the weekly. My Facebook friends, meanwhile, which peaked at 3000 or so, have *dropped* to 1800 - many people don't want the newsletter in their social networking. And while the OLDaily Twitter account has almost 1500 subscribers, that's still less than a third of the number subscribing to my personal account. RSS as well remains strong, with something like 5000 (or it could be 10,000 - I don't have a good count, just Google Reader stats).

What does this tell me?

There may be a lot of traffic in social networks and instant messaging, but it's personal traffic, replacing what used to be accomplished with a quick phone call. I've never really been a phone call person, and today I'm not an instant messaging person.

And there are two other observations I would make:

First, it's not clear to me at least how successful Facebook and Twitter would be without email and the web. Especially the web. Both services depended a lot - and to a certain extent still depend - on email notifications to get off the ground. I would probably never visit Facebook unless an email notification reminded me that people want to friend me, or that someone has sent me a Facebook message (the same was true of twitter until I turned it off).

Second, a significant part of the traffic on Twitter and Facebook point to those very web contents that i also send by email (journalists say that most of that traffic points to professional news content, but I'm not sure the numbers would bear that out). RSS, email and the web are all different facets of the same content, at least when email is thought of from the perspective of email lists, as opposed to quick person-to-person messages.

When Google+ came out I thought that it might be a viable alternative to web or email (I'm sure Google thought so too - a Wave that works, I can imagine them saying to themselves). But with the same sort of limitations imposed on users as those by Facebook and Twitter - the walled-garden effect, with a clampdown on links out - Google+ is also aiming for the same personal traffic as the other services. There's a lot of such traffic - the telephone was successful, and so should be these services, over time.

But people do not want to use those channels for more formal communications, no more than they want to receive advertising or music over their telephones. These communications rely on what are being represented here as 'old' technologies - email and the web. Longer and more in-depth content will continue to be transmitted over these channels (or something similar, but not something like instant messaging or social networking).

So - as Kelly asks - what will replace email and/or RSS and/or the web in the future, if not Google+? Probably our best clues are found in iPhone and iPad apps. Though these platforms are not as open as the devices of the future will be, the sort of functionality found in apps will come to characterize what we will find in web pages and email messages in general (indeed, if one were to measure the app market side by side with with social networks or instant messaging, we would be tempted to rashly predict the death of the latter!).

We need to work out some things. These apps (or at least the data they run on) have to be interoperable. Though the walled-garden works for Apple now, in a wider market it will be unsustainable. Additionally, with the proliferation of mobile content that actually does something on your device, security will have to be dramatically improved (indeed, security is the paramount reason why Apple has employed the walled garden - it keeps the incidence of spam, virii and phishing way down, unlike (say) contemporary email.

The more formal content of the future will resemble the magazine apps of today, with built-in hooks to social networks (to support back-chatter) but also to live data, analytics, interactive media, smart functionality, game-like or simulated behaviour, and other goodies I can't even begin to think of today. Like web 2.0, in other words, but without the sensation of being tied together with duct tape and Javascript.

And while in some cases these new products are being displayed on completely new platforms (like iOS or Android) they will also be displayed on the good-old-web and delivered via RSS, email or personal subscription (which for all practical purposes are in this context indistinguishable from each other). They will not be displayed on the Facebook, Twitter or Google+ 'platforms', no more than you would read a magazine by radio.

People creating email, web and RSS products are already well into the design of corresponding apps. As these apps gain in popularity, the numbers of the 'traditional' services will decline. But the numbers in social networks or instant messages won't increase correspondingly - because social networks and instant messaging are not replacing email, the web and RSS, no matter what the numbers seem to show.

A Little Space for Me and Mine

A local writer and editor of the teen section in our newspaper, Isabelle Agnew has gotten herself into hot water in the letters section of the newspaper by penning a column in which she admits she's a pagan and asserts that she finds Christmas greetings offensive.

"My issue," she writes, "is when I'm buying a coffee and they wish me well for Christmas or when it's completely generalized, at school for example, that we all celebrate Christmas."

Or, "that people were calling the Santa Claus Parade by another name that offended me... My problem with this is that it's not a Christmas parade. If it was, all of the floats would have a Jesus, Mary and other Biblical references. But they don't."

The reaction from her readers has from "Get a life" to " I am not the least bit offended when someone wishes me Happy Yule or Happy Hanukkah" to "I am a Christian and will continue to wish people a Merry Christmas."

The bulk of the respondents have, I think, missed the point of her remarks. It is not that she is offended by the sound of someone wishing her "merry Christmas" or the idea that people would celebrate the season in their own way. It's deeper than that.

Let me make the same point by way of a digression (bear with me, it's a bit of a story, but I think it tells well).

In 1977 I was in the second of two years working at the Rideau Carleton Raceway, serving drinks and snacks in the box lounge (yes, I was underage - don't tell anyone). It was near the end of the season, which finished November 30, and by then I had come to know the box lounge regulars quite well.

I had an excellent strategy for working in a raceway - I banked my salary, and wagered my tips on the ponies. Over two years at the racetrack I had an excellent record - I broke even. It made the work a little more interesting and allowed me to have something in common with my customers.

The last day of the year one of the box lounge regulars gave me a tip, and I bet a $20 exactor on the last race and walked away with more than $250. It was my single biggest win in two years, and came at a time when I couldn't just lose it on the next race. So I walked away from the track a rich man, at least by my standards of the day.

It being found money, I decided to spread the wealth. I went for a trip into the city and found really nice presents for my family members - my four brothers, parents and other relatives. Don't ask me what they were; I have no good idea. I remember plastic and bright colours and that's about it. And I remember them costing me the bulk of my $250.

Christmas came and I spread my presents under the Christmas tree, mixed unobtrusively with the others, waiting to surprise my relations with my generosity. But the presents were unwrapped and set aside with the others with scarcely even a remark. Nobody expressed surprise, nobody expressed gratitude, nobody thought anything of it at all.

The year following, and the years thereafter, I was living on my own, still earning a minimum wage, still desperate for hours of employment, living on the bad side of the poverty line, and counting every penny. I remember drafting a monthly budget that totaled less than $150. And so when Christmas 1978 came around there was not a chance in the world I was spending any money on Christmas presents.

The reaction from my brothers was, I guess not surprisingly, "if you're not getting us anything, we're not getting you anything" (my parents could be counted on for $20 or more in my Christmas card every year until well into my 30s). And in the many years following, that has been the attitude of almost everyone I've ever met.

Indeed, the once exception to this is remarkable. In 1988 (or so) I was invited to a Christmas dinner by Moira Brown and Sam Proskin, colleagues form the Graduate Students' Association who wore their faith on their sleeves and whose generosity was overt. Despite my being very clear no presents were expected or would be exchanged, they ensured I had extra presents, including a nice black-and-white sweater (this one) I own to this day.

So, for me, the giving and receiving of presents has never since been a part of the Christmas season. Nor do I exchange gifts for birthdays or other events. It's no longer part of my culture. That's not to say I no longer give gifts; I have on occasion surprised people with my largesse. But I don't give gifts on a schedule; I don't give gifts because it's expected.

So what does this have to do with people wishing me a merry Christmas?

Well - it's not the act of people wishing people a merry Christmas. I have no problem with this, and I'm sure Isabelle Agnew doesn't either. Rather (and I deduce this from the way she has expressed her point) it's the expectation that what would be wished is a 'merry Christmas' (or even a 'happy holiday'), as though this is what everyone celebrates this time of the year.

Like Isabelle Agnew, I don't celebrate Christmas. Unlike most people, I don't celebrate anything this time of the year, not even Yule or Solstice or whatever. I take the days off because I'm required to by my employer (when I was in the food industry I always worked Christmas and New Years) and generally spend the time working on some project or another (this year I'm setting up a local newspaper cooperative ).

I am frequently asked around this time of year whether I've got all my Christmas shopping done. I respond politely that I don't do Christmas shopping, that I never buy presents. "Not even for the children?" I am asked, as though I committing some sin against nature. "Especially not for the children," I say, under my breath. For my indifference I am called a "grinch."

Generosity is simply expected this time of year. The charities work themselves up into high gear. Christmas dinners are boxed and distributed to families across the city. Teddy bears are collected; Toys for Santa "makes sure every child has a present." I never contribute to such efforts, and if I am ever heard to remark that such generosity would be better distributed across the entire year rather than for a few days in December I am thought of as a wet blanket.

What offends me - and I think this is at the heart of Agnew's point - is the expectation that there will be presents given and received at this time of the year.

Now I don't know whether Agnew distributes presents - she celebrates Yule, so she may well - but her objection to the idea of Christmas is the same as mine. It is the expectation that everyone will celebrate Christmas that is offensive. The suggestion that a common community holiday parade might without a change of meaning be referred to as a Christmas parade.

I have no problem with people celebrating Christmas, and I have no problem with them wishing each other 'merry Christmas', nor even do I have a problem with people wishing me a 'merry Christmas' - but I do have a problem with them expecting me to celebrate Christmas, just as I have a problem with them expecting me to give presents at this time of the year.

If I read Isabelle Agnew right (and I'm pretty sure I do), she's saying, "Don't take my religiosity for granted." Just as I would be saying, "Don't take my generosity for granted."

One of the typicalities of the dominant culture is that it does not even realize that it is dominant. This is so much so with the celebration of Christmas that every little challenge is perceived as an "attack on Christmas," as though any challenge to such a widely-entrenched celebration could be even remotely meaningful. Dominant cultures trample on other cultures without even being aware that they exist.

What I do during the holiday season - even if it's nothing - is meaningful. It has a right to exist, not as an aberration that needs explaining, but as an ordinary state of affairs that ought to be countenanced at least as possible by the majority culture. When you act and talk as though no alternative to the mainstream could even be considered, you go beyond the celebration of your heritage, and into the obliteration of mine.

What we who are not a part of the mainstream ask is just a little space in which to be allowed to exist. Saying "have a happy holiday" instead of "merry Christmas" at least allows that I might be of a faith different from yours. Asking for a charitable donation whenever it's convenient rather than "at this special time of the year" allows for the possibility that this time of year might not be special to me.

For my own part, I wish people every happiness and warmth in the embrace of whatever faith or belief they profess. I wish them satisfaction and success in their endeavours, whatever they may be. I ask nothing in return of them, except that they travel peaceably the road of life and leave a little space on it for me and mine, so we may live harmoniously together.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Musability

This morning I read a short item from Mashable describing some predictions being made for the next five year by IBM. Among more workaday predictions we've heard elsewhere - that biometrics will become mainstream, for example, or that mobile computing will end the digital divide - is a prediction that demands more attention: that mind reading will become a practical technology.

This seems more the stuff of science fiction than it does a practical reflection on the future of work. However, the technology itself is not science fiction. The technology already exists to allow a person to control the movement of a cube on the screen through the exercise of thought alone. As we design input devices of greater and greater sensitivity, phenomena that once appeared to us to be only mental - our thoughts and dreams, for example - will begin to appear as physical manifestations.

Musing ('mental using') will become commonplace. Musability will become an important science, as these interfaces will need to be able to support action without distracting us - if you think it's dangerous to drive while talking on a mobile phone, imagine how dangerous it will be to drive while interfacing with a poorly designed muser agent.

Most likely we will first experience these interfaces as games. We will play at rotating the cube or dropping the objects into the correct containers all the while adapting to new skills our children (or their children) will take for granted. These mental environments will become as real to us - and as important a part of our every day lives - as places like Facebook and Twitter and World of Warcraft are today. It will, indeed, be difficult to imagine what the world was like before people were connected mentally.

It is tempting at first to see such devices as replacing our current control panels and input screens. And there is an advantage to be found in mental control of physical devices. For example, we can with training speed our reaction times. Or we can, through visualization, execute movements that might be difficult physically, such as balancing an object or reproducing an image. Mental controls also reduce the distraction physical movements create while driving or executing some other motor operation.

Musing, however, has the potential to have a much wider impact. The possibility of subsonic broadcast through, say, a tiny transmitter implanted in our ears, or through optical displays embedded in a contact lens, enables two-way communication. A person could interact with another person or device in an entirely inconspicuous manner. The clerk at the counter who smiles and welcomes you by name may be communicating with a complex computer program that tells her everything she needs to know in the time it takes the two of you to shake hands.

Or you may be communicating with each other subvocally. When you walk up to the counter your request has been prepared by your own computer system and is transmitted to her with a thought. She receives a short mental message acknowledging receipt and nods to you in response, while subsonically expressing her thanks for your patronage. Meanwhile your status - and your thoughts - are relayed instantly to other members of your workgroup, who receive them as updates as they participate in meetings or tasks of their own.

It seems like a small thing, internal communication instead of external. But as our machines become more able to respond to our thoughts, these communications will enable complex tasks to be performed by teams of people working in concert. Highly sensitive operations, like computer chip design or brain surgery, for example, will be performed entirely by thought, by operators working in fully immersive environments imagining their way through an environment. Close your eyes and picture yourself attaching neurons to each other - that's what it will feel like to you as nanobots perform the actual physical labour.

While it is tempting to linger on the practical and technical aspects of musability, these will seem superficial when considered against the social changes wrought by such intimate communications. It may be hard to imagine today technologies such as email and texting to be slow and cumbersome, but that is how it will feel to a muser. And the immediacy of such communications will change the way we relate to each other. Social organizations will become much more personal, and the idea that "it's just business" will be relegated to an age when you didn't know - or could pretend you didn't know - how people would feel when you worked with them.

Practical musing technology may still be five years away, and the rise of what the new version of Wired will call "Muser Nation" may be a generation to come, but just as we can see how network technologies have had a profound impact on today's social organizations, weakening the dominance of the hierarchies and resulting in the rise of asymmetrical warfare, people power and crowdsourcing, so also the mentally connected society will experience a fundamental change. It is hopeful - but maybe not unrealistic - to talk of moving beyond mere communicating to an ethos of caring.

Two factors would bring such a future into being. First, we would need a science that allowed us to share not just vocalized thoughts but also our experiences, emotions and feelings. Such a science would be technically possible; the major question is rather whether it would be socially acceptable. And second, a mechanization of work such that the bulk of physical labour were performed mentally, through musable interfaces. In such a case, the practice of 'work' as we know it today becomes less like labour and more like art. In such an environment, we would in order to become engaged, and the level of engagement becomes directly proportional to the emotional fulfillment we receive.

It is perhaps difficult today to imagine a society in which we work for something other than the bread on our table and the roof over our heads, but a combination of abundance energy and mental computation make a reorganization of the underlying economics a necessity. The less demand there is in society for physical labour, the more unfair and less efficient a distribution of wealth based on labour will become. And so as we transition into a post-wealth society, and as public access to the necessities of life become commonplace, new currencies of community and well-being will become paramount.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Online Newspaper Software

Drupal & Hosted Drupal

Newspapers Running on Drupal
This is a demo site showcasing newspapers running on Drupal, a popular open source content management system. These are sites set up using Drupal and then expanded with various modules. There are four newspaper-specific Drupal module packages:
* NodeStream - publish content in newspaper style
* OpenPublish - OpenPublish is an online news platform that emphasizes visitor engagement and ease of content creation. uses automatic tagging
* ProsePoint - online newspaper with configurable sections
* Managing News - Tracks news through RSS feeds and displays where each event is happening on a map

Prose Point Express
This site hosts newspapers - looks like Drupal but I would have to confirm. Modules for facebook like and Disqus comments. Content organized into 'channels'. Separate (and useful) upload for photos. 'promoted story' sider on main page. You can adjust layouts, etc. I was editing fine but then lost the 'control menu'. 
Here's a demo of our site
Hosted service, plans at $19, $39, $99 / month
For an overview, see the case study

Joomla (+K2) and Wordpress newspaper packages - still looking.

Major Commercial

PageSuite
Commercial software, pricing not available, demo not functioning. Focus on subscription, scheduling, advertising and analytics. It looks like there's support for the newer apps. There's a glossy PDF-style magazine publisher.

PressSmart
Suite of products for newspapers, including ePortal and emobile. CMS, templates, classifieds, and cloud hosting, among other features. Major professional suite. I've contacted them for a demo and pricing. Update ePortal Standard Features (US$ 600 per month - includes hosting on Cloud infrastructure) plus extras for additional features. Some examples: http://www.flcourier.com, http://www.thenews24x7.com/

ZMags
Apears to be more of a commerce server, but has something they call online newspaper software. The 'demo' is a video touting ecommerce solutions. A photo of a glossy PDF-style magazine appears. Example: Reboot.


Small Commercial

Flexportal
Newspaper and portal software written in C (which means more installation problems but much better speed). System information here. Available as a hosted solution, or they'll install it on our servers.Demo here is a bit cluttered. Another demo. Here's another example, which is better. Another example. The usual stories, classifieds, layout editor, user management and discussion list, RSS support, and sections, no indication of social features.

Bulletlink
Templates and allarently free hosting, $59/month. Here's an example. Here's another. No demo mode available.

Bondware
Newspaper website software. Demo version.
It looks a bit like WordPress (definitely PHP). Templates would have to be rewritten, as they're not very good. Demo site admin accessed. Here's a 'submit article' page. Note: you have to buy 'epostage' to send emails! $145 monthly (it's broken down into components, like 'core', 'polls', 'calendar', 'newsletter' etc. plus another $550 setup fee). Here's a sample story.

EZY Media
Services include software 'packs' (eg., starter pack ($295), newspaper website ($295), the works ($3K) etc). Hosting starting at $30/month. Here's a demo of the newspaper template. Various link errors on the site. In which case you get a "Page Not Fount" error. Some samples here and here's another.

Tech Cruiser
Newspaper and magazine turnkey hosting. $99 setup fee in some cases, $39/month hosting. Here's a demo site. Here's another. No examples of customer websites provided.


Django

Django
This Python application framework was designed specifically for newsrooms. Some examples: http://www.lawrence.com, Washington Post, LJWorld. An option is a site like Django-CMS, which bundles Django with a CMS and extensions, including newspaper extensions. Here's a demo. See also DjangoSites - some example of newspaper sites

Penny Press 
This is a Django newspaper adaptation.

A resource article on Drupal versus Django

Other Open Source

Props
Open source software available from Sourceforge; PHP and MySQL; not updated since 2008. Example available here and here.